The Road from Colonus

by E. M. Forster

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The elderly Mr. Lucas has been a Grecophile for forty years. Now in declining health, he has decided to see Greece for himself. What he really seeks during his travels is restoration of youth. He is aware of a diminution in his mental power and seems to understand that his independence will soon end. Although he finds Athens overly dusty and Delphi too wet, his disappointment in the trip stirs feelings of discontent that contrast with his usual indifference.

Traveling on muleback through Messenia, a coastal province southeast of Athens, he presses his mount ahead of his companions and arrives early at a small country inn located among a grove of imposing plane trees, where they plan to have lunch. To his surprise, he discovers water flowing across the road; even more surprising, it comes from a huge, hollowed-out plane tree that leans over the small inn.

Regaining some of his lost confidence, Lucas thinks about the tree and its mysterious spring and decides to enter and possess it. When he enters the hollow space seeking the water’s source, he discovers that the tree’s interior, the origin of the spring, has been transformed into a variously decorated shrine. Deriving a sense of spiritual fulfillment from the tree, the flowing water, the people living in the inn, and the surroundings, Lucas resolves to remain there for a time. He has acquired a sense of unity that extends to everything in his environment and anticipates that some profoundly moving experience will take place. Although he has found Greece’s most famous places boring, he is deeply affected by this obscure country setting.

When the others in Lucas’s party arrive, they join him in his admiration of the setting. When he suggests to his daughter, Ethel, that they delay their trip and spend an extra day there, she suggests a week. For her, this response represents a moment of uncharacteristic enthusiasm, but Lucas takes her words seriously. Their travel guide, Mrs. Forman, who earlier identified Lucas with Oedipus and Ethel with Antigone, names the spot Colonus, the site where the life of Oedipus ended. She objects to a delay because it would disrupt their previously arranged schedule. When Ethel inspects the inn and finds the accommodations unsatisfactory, she concludes that she must take her father away for his own good. Against his stubborn opposition, Lucas is placed on his mule by Arthur Graham, his daughter’s fiancé, and the party continue their journey, despite frantic efforts by the inn’s owner and her family to delay them.

A few months later, during breakfast with Ethel in his London apartment, Lucas is busy writing a letter of complaint to his landlord about noises that keep him awake. He is disturbed by music practice from a nearby apartment, assorted street sounds at night, and water gurgling through pipes over his head. Ethel ignores his complaints. She has made plans to marry Mr. Graham within a few weeks, and her Aunt Julia, an unmarried sister of Lucas whom he hates and fears, will come to live in the apartment to care for him.

Unexpectedly, a package containing asphodel bulbs arrives from Greece, a gift from Mrs. Forman. The bulbs are wrapped in an old Greek newspaper, which Ethel proceeds to read. It dates from the time of their trip and contains an article about the deaths of the Rhomaides family—the innkeepers whom they had visited. The plane tree fell onto the inn and killed its inhabitants as they rested on the balcony. From the date given in the newspaper, Ethel determines that the accident occurred the very same night when they considered staying there. She points out to her father how fortunate it was that they left early, but Lucas, busily at work on his letter of complaint, comprehends nothing.

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